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Finding Your Way: The Deep Meanings Behind the Compass

As a tool for navigation, compasses have been used for thousands of years. They’re practical and functional, always pointing north and allowing those who are lost to find their way or those on a journey to maintain their path. Due to this use, compasses have gained symbolic meanings as well. They’re no longer just a practical tool – they’re symbols with profound meanings.

Let’s take a closer look at the origins and history of the compass, and what it symbolizes.

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Compass – Origins and History

The very first compasses were believed to have originated in China, over 2000 years ago. According to historians, these were not used for navigation but for as instruments to align building elements and structures with the principles of feng shui. These early compasses were made of a magnetic needle attached to a cork and floated on water. The needle would always point North, due to the North’s magnetic pull. These early compasses were also used to monitor the stars and sun’s movements.

In the 11th Century, the Chinese started using compasses as navigational devices, for land and sea travel. Eventually the device reached Europe, where its use started to spread. Later on, the compass was altered to include four directions — North, East, South, West — and became a more reliable and accurate instrument in navigation.

Symbolic Meaning of the Compass

Man holding compass

The word compass comes from the Latin words com meaning “together,” and passus meaning “pace or step”. Together, the word compass means to step together or to journey together. This is a symbolic and beautiful, making the compass a symbol of journeys and travels.  

The compass represents a safe and smooth journey. The instrument is used primarily to point you in the right direction and with a compass, you can never get lost. The compass can thus symbolize that although it may take a while for you to reach your destination, you will get there no matter what. For a wanderer, a journey may be tough be it is a gratifying experience. In this way, compasses also represent guidance, safety and security.

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Compasses also represent balance. With its magnet situated on a pivot point, the needle of the compass moves freely and balances itself to point to the right direction. This symbolizes that in order to find the right path, one needs balance and harmony.

Compass symbol significance

Compasses represent motivation and inspiration. As a symbol, the compass signifies bringing motivation to a person feeling lost. It gives a sense of hope and inspires you to follow your heart and your rightful path. Also, compasses always point North, a direction which symbolizes progress, betterment and inspiration. This device points upwards, not south which symbolizes things going wrong.  

Compass symbolize independence, as it assists you in moving out of your comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory. It also signals confidence in your ability to find your way and not to become lost.

Finally, the compass symbol can also represent never forgetting your roots and of always being able to find your way back. This is especially symbolic for young people or travelers, about to move onto the next chapter of their lives.

Modern Day Use of the Compass Symbol

Personalized and handmade compass pendant by Anitolia. See it here.

Apart from its design as a navigational instrument, the compass is often portrayed as a symbol, known as the compass rose. This image is typically used on maps and charts to display the orientation of the cardinal directions, i.e. north, south, east and west. This symbol is often stylized and used in jewelry and fashion.

The compass symbol is often worn in the following ways:

  • Compass pendant – this is probably the most common way to keep the symbol close. It has a certain class and charm. The symbol can be stylized to suit maximalist, glamorous designs or petite, minimalist styles.  
  • Compass ring – there are many ways compass symbols can be designed onto rings, including quirky designs featuring working compasses.
  • Compass charms – if you’re not into jewelry but would still like to have the compass symbol around, compass charms are an excellent option. These can be fixed onto keyrings or hung in your car, for example, as a reminder of adventures, journeys and inspiration.
  • Compass tattoo – Those who have a deeper connection with the compass’s symbol often opt to have it permanently inked on their body. The compass is one of those special symbols that will always be relatable and useful in any person’s life. As such, it’s not a symbol that most people regret inking onto their bodies.
Man with compass tattoo on his arm
Meaningful compass tattoo

The compass symbol is also an excellent choice for gifts. It makes for symbolic gifts, especially for the following occasions:

  • Graduation – For someone about to embark on a new chapter of their life as an adult, the compass symbolizes adventures, optimism and new journeys. Compass jewelry or a decorative object are both good ways to present the symbolism of the compass.
  • Valentines, Engagements and Weddings – When given to a significant other, a compass symbolizes finding your path together as a couple. It also signifies that the receiver is the compass in your life, helping you to move forward on the right path, ever pointing North.
  • A Goodbye Gift – A compass is a wish of good luck and blessings for a traveler, as it signifies hopes for adventure in far off places, without getting lost or forgetting one’s roots. It also signifies that there’s always a way back.
  • Adversity – If a friend or loved one is going through difficult times, a compass is an excellent gift indicating that they will overcome their adversity and will find their path.
Compass use today

Wrapping Up

As a functional and practical tool, the compass has been used for millennia. Even today, with all the modern navigational tools available, the compass remains a highly useful and relevant tool. In fact, many travelers, mountaineers, hikers and campers, still use the compass to find direction. As a symbol, the compass is deeply meaningful, symbolizing many concepts such as inspiration, guidance, protection, safety and adventure.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.